Sermon I preached at Wenatchee Brethren-Baptist, 1-1-23
Talking about the “visitors from the east.”
Sermon I preached at Wenatchee Brethren-Baptist, 1-1-23
Talking about the “visitors from the east.”
[Manuscript for the sermon I preached at International Christian Fellowship, Managua, Sunday, June 9, 2019.]
Good morning. It’s so good to be back with you again. This feels like home to me. Thanks to everyone who expressed excitement to have me back up here. My dad loved to say, “There’s no accounting for taste,” meaning people like what they like and you can’t really explain or make sense of it. I’m gonna say that goes both ways here. We probably deserve each other.
There are too many things I want to say this morning, having only one shot at it, seniors getting ready to head out into the wide world, many of you heading off in different directions very soon. It was harder than usual to set aside my own thoughts to try to hear what God has for you. Always for me the very first step in the process is to come before Jesus, ask him to help me set aside my own agenda and ego, and to help me want to say only what God wants me to say. When I try to fix my ego on my own, it’s a lot like getting super glue on your hands and then trying to get it off…with your hands. You just get more stuck and make more of a mess. Similar, I can get to “help me to say what you want” and end up like when the child is required to apologize. I’m sure we’ve all seen that. “I’m sorry.” Yeah, technically those words did come out of your mouth, but that’s not actually how being sorry works. Every time for me it’s a process of setting aside my own agenda for what you need to hear and praying that I will desire to say only what God wants me to say. It’s not a one-and-done thing, but when I start in that direction, it’s much easier to keep going.
Rhonda is the middle sister. You never hear about her. She’s adopted. She had a horrible, really a horrific life before she was adopted. She was abused. She had been passed around and sold. People did horrible things to her and she believed that made her horrible, dirty, flawed. But that’s not how it works. That’s not how God sees it. When some hard-hearted men dragged a woman caught in adultery in front of Jesus—which they did not to effect justice for her but to trap Jesus, meaning they used her shame to try to hurt him, and by the way, doesn’t adultery require two people?—Jesus made it clear to her and to everyone present that he was not condemning her. She was caught sinning and Jesus, the only one who had a right to condemn her, did not condemn her. Did she apologize? Ask forgiveness? Not that we read. Check this out—Jesus told her he did not condemn her without her begging for forgiveness. What? That’s crazy. That would be like Jesus telling a condemned criminal that he would enter paradise just for asking, “Jesus, remember me? ” Oh, wait. That happens, too.
So if Jesus doesn’t condemn a woman caught in the act of adultery and forgives a man clearly condemned for his crimes, why would God see a girl as dirty or shameful for what someone else did to her? So it is with Rhonda. She knows she is loved.She knows, beyond certainty, that she was rescued from vile darkness and brought home. Why? Because her father loves her. When her father looks at her, he doesn’t see a girl who had bad things done to her. He sees his daughter, beloved and clean and whole. Living the real life intended for her.
Rhonda’s brothers have issues. One of them rejected the family entirely and ran away. The other is this self-righteous so-and-so who always talks about how hard he works and how little he’s appreciated. He likes to compare himself with his little brother. But for all his boastful “godliness,” he’s unkind. He talks disrespectfully to their dad and pays no attention to Rhonda. But her father took her aside and explained that we all have hard places in our hearts, and that her brother’s attitude toward her is a reflection of his heart, not a reflection of Rhonda.
Rhonda can’t understand how her brothers can respond this way. Maybe it’s because they’ve always had a home and therefore can take it for granted. She’s spent the last years first trying to forget and block out what happened to her and then starting to let herself remember and grieve it. She’s spent more hours than she can count crying and screaming and getting angry. She has nightmares. But she’s safe now, she knows that, and the pain is less than it used to be. She doesn’t want to kill herself anymore. She doesn’t wish every day that she was someone else. Her father has said, “I love you, Daughter,” so many times that she’s not only believing it but starting to say to herself, “I love you, Rhonda.” If he can love her, knowing everything that happened, maybe she can love herself, too. That seemed impossible at one point, but this house is the kind of a place where impossible things happen.
Speaking of that, the impossible happened. Her younger brother, whom she hadn’t seen for years, just came home. He was wrecked, absolutely wrecked. He looked so skinny she was afraid he was dying of cancer. But he just hadn’t eaten. He was in another city, starving to death. She cried and cried when she saw him, and she hugged him so hard she was afraid she would break him, frail and weak as he was. Then she cried some more.
And it was sostrange for her. Her heart was broken for him, but he was okay now, safe, back home. Was she crying for sadness or joy? Both. Even stranger, she was crying her hardest, but for once not for her own pain, not for her herself. And that felt strangely good, like her heart had grown big enough to bear others’ pain, not merely survive her own.
She and her younger brother could talk now, in a way that they never could before.She was fond of him before, but she knew he didn’t really care much about anything other than himself and whatever entertained him at the moment. But being gone, and all he went through, had changed him. He talked so quietly now. He used to be so loud and rude. Now he almost whispered. But when she first heard his loud laugh come back, that was the day she knew he would be okay. He doesn’t talk much about what happened to him. He simply refers to it as “when I was lost.” Once he even said, “When I was dead.”
She said, “I know exactly what you mean.”
But the absolute strangest part was how her big brother reacted. She never really understood until the day her little brother came home. Her father threw the biggest party she’d ever seen, this crazy huge celebration, even bigger than the one he threw on the day her adoption became official. Her father had taken her aside and told her, “It’s because you knewyou were home. He doesn’t know yet. Not really. But he will.” Her father offered a toast and said, “We have to celebrate. This is resurrection. This may be the best day of our lives.”
Rhonda thought about how her older brother would have reacted to hearing that, but of course he didn’t hear it, because he wasn’t there. He’d refused to come to the party at all.
That’s when she finally got it. She’d had so much trouble her first years in the family feeling at home in their house, believing that she belonged there, that she could deserve such a life, the she could ever deserve to be loved. How many times had her father said, “I love you and this is all yours. You don’t have to earn it. You can’t, Silly. I’ve given it to you.” Now here was her older brother, activelytryingto make her younger brother feel he didn’t deserve to be home.Of course, she thought, hedidn’t know how hard it is to believe you’re loved after you’ve been lost. He couldn’t recognize that he was doing something spiteful and evil…because…because…oh, my gosh, he was lost, too. That went beyond strange. That was crazy. Did it really work that way? He grew up in this house. His father told him, “I love you” every single day. His father showedhim love every single day. But somehow love hadn’t gotten through, it hadn’t entered his heart. That made no sense
But when she looked in his eyes, she could see it was true. Rhonda could see only anger there. Maybe even hatred. And, to her surprise, that helped her not to feel angry at her older brother anymore, because in that instant she realized, “I could be you, angry at what happened to me, full of hate and rage. I always thought we were so different but now I see we’re just the same. Or we could have been, if I’d let that hatred have me. You didn’t get abused, but you have convinced yourself that you did. You talk about working here, for our father, like that’s an abuse, like you were neglected. Or exploited. But it’s your herds, your crops,your home. But you aren’t at home here. You see yourself as a slave.”
That was fiction, of course. Jesus’ story in Luke 15 was fiction, too, but it’s, y’know, Jesus, so we understand that Jesus is telling truth through his fiction. With all my heart I believe that the father of the prodigal son in Luke 15 is theliving God Almighty, whom Jesus knew as Abba, to whom we can cry, by whom we are loved, and with whom we are home, wherever we happen to live in this world.
Before I go on, just to be clear, Jesus never mentioned Rhonda the middle daughter because she wasn’t causing problems. All parents know—and certainly all middle children know–that children who raise a ruckus are the ones who get the most attention. And the default is to notice the middle child less. Right?
Seriously, Rhonda came to me last Sunday while listening to Phillip’s sermon, and when I tried to set her aside and write a different sermon, I ran into a dead end. I’ve preached long enough to know that when I tell God, “No, I need different inspiration,” it always goes just like that. Thus, I mentioned the preparation process at the beginning. I don’t often get the full idea for a sermon in a flash, and as many who have worked with me will attest, almost never a whole weekahead of time. But I didn’t want to offend people by adding to the Prodigal Son story, so I kind of balked. However, I know for sure someone here needed to hear this and it was important enough to God that I was not allowed an out, other than outright disobedience. So to be clear, I know this is not part of Scripture and I’m using creative interpretation here, both about God’s love for the orphan and the abused and about God’s love for his two sons, which maybe we can see even a little clearer from a different angle. I always pray that God alone will offend us and we will let that begin to change our hearts. If I’ve still offended you, don’t worry, I won’t do it next week.
What do Rhonda and her brothers show us about God?
Nothing can separate us from the love of God.Nothing. If we’ve been abused, God doesn’t see us as unclean. If we’ve made horrible choices and put ourselves outside of God’s family, we’re still never outside of God’s reach. Ever. It’s impossible. If we have hardened our hearts against the God who relentlessly loves us, if we’ve decided we got a crappy, sorry, skubuladeal and if God’s grace for others offends us, God comes out to us, humbles himself and actually pleadswith us to come home, to feel the compassion he gives us for those lost sheep, those bedraggled and starving little brothers, those asylum-seekers who pray for a home.
Rhonda’s family reminds us that our failures and faults and sins don’t disqualify us. Ever. Because we didn’t “qualify” in the first place. We werelovedin the first place and that has always, only given us a part in God’s Kingdom. If this has been a crummy year and you’re no longer sure you’re qualified to be a missionary, or even a Christian, guess what? You never did qualify.We don’t “qualify.” We are loved. We are adopted. We aregivena place. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoptionas children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba!Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.”
The older brother is wrong; he couldn’t be more wrong. “All these years I’ve been working like a slave for you…” No, Son. You are home. The younger brother is wrong. “‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’” The younger brother wasn’t worthy because he behaved well. He’s worthy because the father’s love made him worthy and he can’tlose that because the father refuses to take it back. Do you hear this? Yes, the younger son sinned against the father—yes, you may have sinned and screwed up and even full-on failed, but that isn’t the argument. The father won’t even let his child finish his apology or explanation or whatever. The father shows the son, by his actions, that he is stillworthy, that he is stillloved.
But the father—listen to this– BUT the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’
One more thing that the Rhonda story teaches us, and this is where adding Rhonda really does bring something to light: this is the family of God. These are the people we are called to love and work with and beGod’s Kingdom with. So if you listen to this story and think, “Nope, I’m not any of them,” I can guarantee that you have these people in your life. God has sent you to welcome them home.
Rhonda looks around and sees, “Wow, I’m pretty messed up, but so are these brothers of mine.” She knows that she was given a place in the family and a home through grace, and therefore she has grace to offer them. “Those who have been forgiven much, love much. Those who have been forgiven little, love little.” As we know we are loved, we become able tolove. It’s a process, rarely a straight line, and it involves God getting at the hard parts of our heart where we still hold out that we are unlovable.
When we experience Jesus loving us not because we qualify, not because we are worthy, but in spite of our feelings that we never will qualify or be worthy, we carry that grace with us for others.
You remember to whom Jesus was telling this story, right? The Pharisees. He told this story to them, about them, because they did not want to love “sinners” and they did not want himto love “sinners,” either. They believed, trulybelieved, that God was glorified by their rejection of the unclean and sinful. The elder brother believed he was in the right making his younger brother feel unwelcome in hishome. But the way Jesus tells the story, by rejecting hisyounger brother, who was dead and is alive again, the elder brother also insulted and rejected his father. Can you see how that makes this not optional? If we reject the people Jesus welcomes, we’ve rejected him at the same time.He’s begging us to come in, but Rhonda is right—if we refuse to welcome our younger brother home, we’ve told the father “Now you listen to me!” In other words, “You shut up, because I know and you don’t.”
I met with a young man last week, I’m going to call him Matteo. Matteo lives not with his parents but with his extended family, and they have told him he is an idiot all his life. They use that word, in Spanish, over and over. He is not Christian enough for them, he does not meet their standards of how a person should behave and follow Jesus, and their way of correcting him is to grill him, browbeat him, and call him “idiot.” You might guess I have issues with this. Matteo and I have met for years, but of course this is the first time I’d seen him in a long time. Here’s the beautiful thing: Matteo is doing great!
Matteo is actually highly intelligent, I mean downright brilliant. Smarter than I am by a lot. He’s in university now. He’s working at a job making a lotof money, which is pretty incredible in itself for a young man in Nicaragua. Ever since we first started meeting and I learned of Matteo’s home situation, I have been telling him, “You are loved. You are smart. God is crazy about you.” And not to oversimplify, but in a nutshell the entire work of mentoring this young Nicaraguan was simply to help him understand and truly believe that what God says about him is different than what his family says about him. That God loves him somuch, as he is right now, and that the mistakes he makes are not disqualifiers for being a child in God’s home, but a normal part of growing and learning and walking with Jesus.
Do you know who Matteo is in my story? He’s Rhonda.
Because all three of these roles in the story, younger and elder brother and middle sister, can be any of us. Sometimes we are one of them for a period of time and then a different one for another time.
Matteo needed to know that he is welcome in his Father’s house, that he isworthy to be called a son because God makes him worthy and Matteo is loved with an eternal and infinite love.
Just. Like. You.
Sermon I preached at International Christian Fellowship, Managua, 6-9-19
Audio starts at 18 seconds. Listen to how they say “Good Morning!”
Preached at New Song Church, East Wenatchee, Washington on January 20, 2019. Titled “But What If I Don’t Have Any Enemies?”
Luke 6 27 “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.[e] Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Today at International Christian Fellowship, which had many fewer folks than usual, I gave a meditation. Pretty sure others would still call it a sermon, but 1)I didn’t use a manuscript, which I do 99% of the time and 2)I was working my way through chapter 3 and the beginning of 4 of Philippians, giving some commentary to build to a point about how we apply Philippians 4:6 in our current context…this political crisis
Sound starts at 0:00(!) but goes in and out a bit in the first few minutes–that’s what I’m commenting about.
“The light has shined in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1
Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Matthew 8
This is a very simple sermon. It is this: light is life. When we come into the light, when we live in the light, we have life.
Romans 1 describes darkness: “though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.” That darkness. The darkness of sin, the darkness that makes us think wrong. Darkness is death. Things that stay in the darkness fester and rot and lead to death. Staying in darkness kills us.
Jesus is light. When we are in Jesus, we are in the light.
That’s as simple as it gets.
“This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
The Gospel is simple. It’s not easy, but it is simple. Yes, we can complicate it, and yes there are mysteries beyond our comprehension. The Trinity is a barn burner, something I believe without claiming I can fully understand it. But sometimes, we need to return to our basics, our grounding, what roots us.
When we allow darkness in our lives, when we conceal what is evil or what pulls us away from God, we are at a double risk. The first is simply that we do ourselves damage. The darkness has a powerful appeal. An old lyric by the Indigo Girls captures it:
Well darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable/
And lightness has a call that’s hard to hear
That’s Gospel truth in secular lyrics. Darkness has a hunger that is insatiable. It will eat you alive. What it offers to satisfy us only leaves us hungry for more, because it can never fill that space inside us. But man, it feels like it can. That’s the lie.
So the first risk of darkness is that it hurts us. We may not feel it, know it, or recognize it. But Jesus is pretty clear about what happens to us in darkness: “Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world.10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.”
The second risk of darkness is that we feel shame and want to keep hidden. The common condition of all humanity is that, when we step into the darkness, we have the urge to go further in so that we don’t have to face our shame.
You know why I make so big a deal of grace? Because it’s the truth. And because if it’s our habit to acknowledge that we are sinners and that we sin and fall all the time, then repenting gets easier. If we create a reputation for ourselves that we do no wrong, it become harder to confess when we’ve fallen. If what we know about darkness is that God rescues us from it, then coming back into the light is cause for celebration, not shame. If you put the shame we feel on one side of a scale and put the delight God takes in us on the other side, our shame is as nothing. Not even a feather. But that’s not always how we experience it, is it?
I’m being totally serious here. People commit suicide because they can’t bear the shame they feel over having sinned, especially sins that lead to public humiliation and/or many damaged lives. But you know what Jesus says? “There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who need no repentance.” And if you hear that and think, “Yeah, but he’s talking about sinners who are repenting and become followers of Jesus, not Christians who aren’t supposed to sin,” then I think you’ve misunderstood who we are. Church is the gathered sinners. We aren’t the righteous, except in Jesus Christ. Jesus gives us his righteousness—that’s part of the deal—and takes our sin upon himself. We’re still the sinners who repent.
This is what the Apostle John, who really got it that he was a sinner loved by Jesus, wrote in his first Epistle: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.6If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true;7but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.8If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.9If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.10If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”
You and I are sinners. We fall into darkness sometimes. No, that sounds too passive. We dive into the darkness sometimes. We go plunging into darkness, chasing things that promise us life but deliver death. The wages of sin are death. And then we go, “Oh, crud, I’m in the darkness again. Don’t I know better? How many times is this?” Then we have a decision to make. Every time, we have a decision to make.
God loves for us to live in the light. Jesus died for us so that we can live in the light. And still, if we say we have no sin, the truth is not in us. Living in the light, for us, means constantly returning to the light after we’ve strayed in the darkness and, over time, growing in our belief that God knows what he’s talking about. The hope is that we come to recognize the signs when we are creeping toward the darkness and start to turn back sooner. The day when we turn back from the darkness before we enter the darkness is a great day!
As I said, this is all simple stuff. I’m not telling you this because you’ve never heard it, I’m telling you this because there is darkness in our lives. We have allowed areas of darkness to enter our lives. Jesus calls us back into the light. Here’s a verse I love—Colossians 1:13
He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son,14in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Jesus has rescued us from the power of darkness. Darkness has power. If you don’t know that, you have not understood our enemy. Darkness has such power that we could not free ourselves from it but needed rescuing. That’s what Jesus did. Jesus died and resurrected and through that act, rescued us from the power of darkness. Darkness now has no power over us, meaning it cannot control us unless we give it control, and Jesus can always bring us back. When we say “we were dead in our sins,” we mean we had no way out of the darkness. But Jesus is the light of the world. Jesus gives us a way out. Jesus Himself is our way out.
God has not only rescued us from the power of darkness, “the dominion of darkness,” he has also transerred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son. We are taken out of the kingdom of darkness and brought into the kingdom of light, the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. 7”In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our sins, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us.”
That means our lives, which were being used for evil, are paid for by Jesus’ suffering and transformed into forces or good, for light in this dark world. That’s redemption.
Trusting that you’re tracking with me, I want to get very specific and then look at this broadly.
In a rental car driving back from Costa Rica, I talked with three friends about some darkness in my life. Now, glory to God, it was darkness in my mind and not in my actions, darkness that was calling me with a hunger that’s insatiable, and I, being me, a redeemed mess if ever there was one, chose to talk with my brothers about it. I kind of presented it as a hypothetical, but they’re my friends and saw through me. I needed them to. It was a good discussion, and we all chipped in, but the crucial part of that transaction was that I brought some darkness within me into the light, where Jesus can give me life. Literally, by speaking those words I was following Jesus, choosing not to walk in darkness, and having the light of life brought into me by my brothers, jerks that they are. They asked good questions. They made bad jokes. They did what friends do. They asked what would have happened if I had continued in darkness, which honestly is a great question to ask, especially when I haven’t made the wrong decision, because it allowed me to look down that road and say, “Oh, yuck.” They empathized with my struggle, which is nice. Having people sit loftily above you and fail to imagine how they could be that bad a sinner, well, if that’s what your friends do, may I recommend new friends? That’s what Job’s non-friend friends did.
Here’s my list: I recognized that the thoughts I was having were darkness, not light, Satan calling to me, not Jesus. I chose not to follow them. But that wasn’t enough, so as an act of will, I chose to speak them out loud to my brothers in Christ, my fellow redeeemed compatriots, because darkness cannot bear light. Jesus’ light brings healing to anything we’ve kept in darkness. Anything.
Here’s the other list. Check it for yourself.
I could have told myself it was not that big a deal. I could have rationalized that it was just bad thoughts, so what? We’re in a very stressful time personally within a very stressful time corporately and it’s understandable that my brain might go sideways. I could have told myself that I’m too mature still to be dealing with this. Obviously, I’m not, but aren’t I supposed to be? Or shouldn’t they think I am? What will they think of me? Will they think less of me? Will they tell people?
Those are all such reasonable-sounding thoughts. But none of them are the voice of Jesus. That’s the darkness calling.
This is not a sermon on accountability or on having good friends—pretty sure I’ve given that sermon here at some point—but I’m very blessed with good friends and I pray God blesses you that way, too.
One more point on darkness. Being in the darkness, as it sounds, means we will have trouble seeing. We’re talking symbolism here, something we can understand to help us grasp something that we cannot yet understand. To me, the scariest part of being in the darkness is convincing ourselves that we’re not really in the darkness at all. It usually happens by degrees. I hate seeing this and I’ve definitely seen it too often.
In Matthew 6, right smack in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says this: 22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; 23 but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”
In context, Jesus is talking about money and possessions. Immediately before this, he says, 19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal;20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Then he says the eye is the lamp of the body and a healthy eye will make your body full of light but an unhealthy eye will make your body full of darkness. Right after this, he says “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
So how does the health of our eye relate to being in light or darkness? Remember, Jesus is using symbolism. This is not an optometry lesson, it’s spirituality. It’s discipleship.
If your eye, the part of you that registers and seeks and brings in light, is healthy, then you will be full of light—the light we’ve been talking about, Jesus’ light, the light that gives us life. But if your eye is unhealthy, instead of bringing light into your body, it will bring in darkness—but you’ll think it’s still light. That’s why Jesus says, “If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”
Being in darkness is bad, but to be flooded with darkness while you believe you are in light? What’s more dangerous? How will you repent? Why would you repent?
The strongest example we have of this is the Pharisees, who believed that they knew God better than anyone else, but were completely blind to God incarnate, standing right in front of them, calling them to repent. They told Jesus his power came from Satan. The Son of God comes directly to you, demonstrates his power, and says, “Come, love people like I do,” and you say, “No, you’re the devil.” If the light in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
I want you to note that their version of being in the darkness but refusing to see that they are in darkness, is all religious. It isn’t that they no longer believe in God; they believe that they know God better than everyone else, better than Jesus, the Light of the world as he stands there talking to them; that’s exactly what keeps them in darkness. This is utter blindness.
It can go either way, of course. I’ve also seen people decide that what they used to call “sin” was actually just fine, after all, and the only real problem had been feeling bad about it in the first place. I call that tragedy.
But if we’re going to be honest about the world we live in, I’ve also seen people freed from legalism and guilt over things that I believe had nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but were exactly the empty law-keeping Paul talked about. Colossians 2 “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, 21“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”?22 All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings.23These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.”
So here we are, trying to walk with Jesus in the light, and we need to discern what is light and when we are in darkness. We need faithful friends who sin like we do, love Jesus like we do, and can speak truth to us: “Yeah, that’s darkness, Come out of there.” Even better if we have the friends who can also say, “Dude, you’re being a Pharisee. Come out of there, too.” The good news is that, astoundingly, Jesus wants us in the light even more than we want to be there. We’re all conflicted and want to have life in Jesus but also sort of flirt with the darkness; Jesus, in whom there is no darkness at all, is not the least conflicted. He just wants us in the light. Ultimately, that’s where our hope is. John experienced this personally: “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Even if this starts to seem complex, it’s still simple. Recognizing darkness and loving light comes through loving Jesus. When I spend time with Jesus, when I immerse myself in the Gospels, when I give myself to the things that help me know him more deeply—for me, loving young adults, recreating, writing in my journal, reading spiritual truth from good writers, hanging with the other faithful, redeemed sinners—I grow in my ability to distinguish light from darkness. I grow in my love for being in the light with Jesus, doing his Kingdom work.
I want to close with a glimpse of the big picture. We all know a lot about what’s happening here right now in our beautiful, beloved Nicaragua. It’s horrible and it’s scary. I believe it is also a picture of walking in darkness instead of light. John 3
“This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
It may have started with some small darkness. It may have started with some minor-seeming self-deception. I’m guessing there were moments when people could have spoken the truth and challenged the darkness, but that didn’t happen. Or it was rejected. And it grew. It multiplied. There is a dominion of darkness and a Kingdom of light. Those aren’t just physical realities, nor merely when people decide to do good stuff or bad stuff. Those are spiritual realities, spiritual realms in warfare. When mothers whose children have been killed march in protest and people murder some of those marchers with sniper rifles, we’re seeing the kingdom of darkness right in front of us.
Going back to our first two verses: “The light has shined in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
People are walking in darkness all around us. That’s always true, but it’s out in the open now. Jesus is the light of the world and He shines in the darkness. The darkness has not and will not overcome it. We follow Jesus. We are in Him, in his light. We do not walk in darkness, even when the darkness is all around us. When you see darkness like this, there’s nothing appealing or tempting about it. It’s ugly and brutal. This is what darkness really is, no matter how it dresses up.
Our job, as I see it, is to keep on being light. I know a lot of us feel helpless and scared. It is scary. Nothing wrong with feeling scared. That’s common sense. But letting fear control us is different. I know we’re praying, and that’s exactly what we have to do, that’s what we do first and that’s no small thing. In truth, that’s the biggest thing. To quote John Bunyan, “You can do more than pray after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed. Pray often, for prayer is a shield to the soul, a sacrifice to God, and a scourge to Satan.” That sounds pretty good right now.
The other thing I know to do is keep calling people back to focus on Jesus. With my human eyes, I can’t see right now how God is going to bring peace and justice here, but I am believing he will. Ultimately, our hope is not in human solutions, but in God’s love and grace. People come to know Jesus in crisis, when they know their need. As the saying goes, there are no atheists in foxholes. This is the time to speak up about our hope. Share your light. Come, Lord Jesus.
Sermon for International Christian Fellowship, June 3, 2018
Living in the light and coming out of the darkness.
NOTE: Audio begins at :25 (25 seconds) but is nearly unbearable until 1:05. Then they got it adjusted and thereafter it’s fine.
Nicaragua, as you may or may not know, has been in turmoil and upheaval. Marches and demonstrations continue. We are praying for peace AND justice.
As I was praying about what to preach, the impression I got from God was to focus on who God is and what that means for us in crisis.
Audio starts at :42 (the buzzing stops) and you miss “It’s been a very strange couple of weeks for us. We went on a trip to celebrate our twenty-fifth anniversary. Two days later, the protests began. Some of the seniors in my Bible class…”
I’ve never preached a Holy Saturday service. Christians also call it Great Saturday, Easter Eve, or Black Saturday.
If you do a Lenten reading of the Gospels, going back forty days and planning ahead to read the resurrection stories on Easter, Holy Saturday reading is pretty easy.
The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph. They saw the tomb and how Jesus’ body was placed in it. 56 Then they went home. There they prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath day in order to obey the Law.
Verse fifty-five is for context. Verse fifty-six is it, and only the second half. They went home and prepared spices and perfumes on Friday, before their shabbat, their sabbath, had started. Jews observed the sabbath from sundown to sundown. This day, this Saturday, is also referred to as The Great Sabbath.
What happened during the Great Sabbath?
Nothing. The women followed the Jewish law by resting on the Sabbath. Nothing changed.
Jesus was taken and murdered, except it was state-sanctioned so we call it “executed,” betrayed by the religious leaders, who lied and framed him during his mockery of a trial, then turned him over to the soldiers who occupied Israel, who hated the Jews and with a full-throated, racist hatred. That sign, “The King of the Jews?” Step back from the double-meaning that you might know and think about that. They took a Jew and beat him viciously, then put him in a robe and “crown,” laughed at him and spat on him, then made a sign to let the world know that this ragged, bleeding criminal was the Jewish King.
Do you understand that? Soldiers for the occupying army are making very clear that any uprising under this king will fail. The Jewish leaders, the ones who turned Jesus over to this torture, protested: “Don’t say ‘King of the Jews,’ but ‘This man claimed to be King of the Jews.’”
19 Pilate had a notice prepared. It was fastened to the cross. It read,
20 Many of the Jews read the sign.
That’s because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city. And the sign was written in the Aramaic, Latin and Greek languages. 21 The chief priests of the Jews argued with Pilate. They said, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews.’ Write that this man claimed to be king of the Jews.”
22 Pilate answered, “I have written what I have written.”
They wrote in three different languages, “The King of the Jews.: They wanted everyone in sight, anyone who could read, to grasp that there would be no Jewish uprising, no Jewish King. This is what happens to a Jewish King.
Conquering armies conquer, and when there is any threat of rebellion, they usually crush it ruthlessly, violently. When King Herod thought there was the slightest chance of a baby growing up to overthrow him, he had all the children three years old and under slaughtered. All of them.
That’s the power ruling on Saturday afternoon. Saturday afternoon, Jesus is dead. The women are resting because that’s the law on the sabbath. The soldiers are soldiering, doing their duty. Beating and flogging and humiliating Jesus, that was just their duty, maybe something they enjoyed more because they really did hate the Jews or less because “let’s just kill him and be done with it.” Pilate went back into his palace. The crowds disbursed.
Joseph of Arimethea, who was on the Jewish Council. had not only a change of heart but such a transformation that he dared take responsibility for a dead criminal and provide him a place of honor to bury him. He took Jesus and had him buried in an empty tomb, not a pauper’s grave, not just tossed by the side of the road. It was a strange decision, to put this stranger, this false prophet, in an honored place of burial, where no one had been buried before. Then Joseph went home and rested, too, because anything that could be done, he had done.
Sunday morning comes.
Everything changes on Sunday. Literally everything changes for us.
Is is Saturday or Sunday?
It was very early in the morning on the first day of the week. The women took the spices they had prepared. Then they went to the tomb. 2 They found the stone rolled away from it. 3 When they entered the tomb, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 They were wondering about this. Suddenly two men in clothes as bright as lightning stood beside them. 5 The women were terrified. They bowed down with their faces to the ground. Then the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? 6 Jesus is not here! He has risen! Remember how he told you he would rise. It was while he was still with you in Galilee. 7 He said, ‘The Son of Man must be handed over to sinful people. He must be nailed to a cross. On the third day he will rise from the dead.’ ” 8 Then the women remembered Jesus’ words.
9 They came back from the tomb. They told all these things to the 11 apostles and to all the others. 10 Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them were the ones who told the apostles. 11 But the apostles did not believe the women. Their words didn’t make any sense to them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb. He bent over and saw the strips of linen lying by themselves. Then he went away, wondering what had happened.
First thing Sunday morning, nobody knows anything has changed yet. Think about this moment. This is our moment that I want us to understand this morning.
The women wake up, probably first, certainly very early. Or maybe they didn’t sleep. I’ve been there, both ways. Have you ever woken up, felt good, felt normal, and then remembered? Maybe a tragedy, maybe a horrible situation, and it hits you again as you’re waking up, a brick to the face. You wish you could have stayed oblivious for another 30 seconds, just to not have to remember how bad things are. But they are and forgetting doesn’t change it. Even worse is when the grip of grief and shock and sorrow won’t let you go and nothing you do can pry their grip loose, not even long enough to drift off for a few minutes. It’s “very early in the morning,” which can also be translated “at early dawn” or “before first light.” The women are trying to get to the tomb early. Do you know why? They want to dress the body before it starts to decompose. At this hour on Sunday morning, their direct concern is the practicality of dealing with a corpse.
Step back. You know what’s going to happen next. You know what they’ll find when they get to the tomb. Go split screen in your mind. Picture this is what the women are talking about, this is the mood in their rooms as they light candles to go out in the dark to perform the last act of service, the final gesture of love for a man who can no longer do anything for them. Was he wrong? Were his teachings false? Was his belief in God too hopeful? Did God fail him? Do any of those questions even matter now that he’s dead?
Their hearts are heavy as stone and they’re trying to follow through with an act that is the right thing to do but in the end what does it mean for this dead man? And they’re going to an empty tomb. They’re minutes away from encountering angels. They’re about to find out that everything, everything has changed and Jesus wasn’t wrong about any of it. They just couldn’t grasp what he told them.
Get this: Jesus wasn’t wrong about any of it; they just couldn’t grasp what he told them. How true is that for us?
Easter means that although we’re still talking about taking care of Jesus’ body, Jesus has risen from the grave. We’re still discussing whether they’re going to come hunt us down because we followed him. We’re asking one another, “Who will role away the stone?” We’ll get answers, and so far beyond the scope of what we could have imagined. What is Peter thinking about on Saturday? Imagine what Peter’s Saturday night was like…
When the women come back from the tomb, which does not have a dead body that “belongs” there, but which does have two beings dressed in white who don’t normally belong there, the men, the male disciples, the fishermen and the tax collector and the revolutionary, don’t believe them.
5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.
They think the women are looloo, loco. This may be borrowing trouble, but do they not believe them because they’re women? Women were not legal witnesses in that time and culture, were the legal property of their husbands or fathers, and I don’t think it was a mere coincidence that these women got to be the first witnesses. These were women who had faithfully followed Jesus. On one level, God gave them this in keeping with how Jesus exploded the confining, smothering, dehumanizing roles of women in their culture. Jesus taught them as he taught the disciples, making them companions among his followers, receiving financial support from them.
On another level, the Messiah who taught that genuine, meaningful greatness comes from service, who washed his twelves apostles’ feet hours before he died, rewarded these women’s humble service by giving them the good news of Resurrection first. Isn’t that just like Jesus? The women came to the tomb to dress the body with spices and perfumes. For this tiny attempted action, they got to see angels, they got to hear news beyond their most desperate and ridiculous hopes. Jesus taught that a mustard seed of faith is enough to move a mountain, that giving a cup of cold water to any thirsty person is an encounter with God, that two tiny copper coins given in faith equal more than piles of coinage given for show, and their following through on this menial job instead of despairing and fleeing to their homes made them the first to switch from Saturday to Sunday Reality.
But the men laugh at them, or scoff, or ignore or rebuke or scold. The women are living in Sunday morning, they have moved through darkness and despair into Resurrection and hope. Sunday morning, the men are still living Saturday. Jesus is not in the tomb, but they still believe he is. The women told them the truth, and they brushed it off. There is the Reality that exists on Sunday, and then the reality the men are still living. They’re wrong. They’re in the dark. But right in this moment they are basing all their thoughts and decisions in this Saturday reality in which they believe.
Peter has to see.
These are wonderful words to me: “But Peter.”
But Peter got up and ran to the tomb.
Peter has to know. If there’s any slightest chance that the Saturday Reality is not the Final Word, not the Final Interaction Peter will have with Jesus, Peter has to see. I’m picturing that the rest of the guys are laughing and snarking at the women, or just won’t even respond:
“Yeah, right, there’s no body there, Jesus grew wings and flew away, did you see his body, you stupid—Peter, where are you going? Peter!”
He bent over and saw the strips of linen lying by themselves. Then he went away, wondering what had happened.
Even so, Peter is not sure. Now his reality is somewhere between Saturday and Sunday. There’s no body there. Jesus’ corpse is not in that tomb. What happened? Faith begins when the reality we “knew” with certainty suddenly gets shaken up and maybe, maybe…this is true? U2 describes this in a song: “At the moment of surrender/Of vision over visibility” When the vision of what is True becomes more real than what’s visible to my physical eyes. That’s the moment of faith.
But Peter is still going fishing on Sunday because that’s what he knows and he’s going back to the reality he lived before.
Jesus is going to have to confront Peter more directly, with a lot of fish, before Peter moves all the way into Sunday reality.
In which reality are we living?
I’m not saying if we just believe in Resurrection, all the bad things in our world will disappear. I am saying everything changes for us, in us, and the impossible things become possible.
Sunday morning, racism can change. It can. You know how I know? Slavery used to be legal. Slavery in many countries in the world became illegal when followers of Jesus spoke out against it, and fought it, and refused to accept it any longer because Jesus had changed their hearts. Jesus had taught them to see people differently. Jesus had overcome death and made the impossible, possible.
Sunday morning, death no longer wins. Sunday morning, the racist hatred that killed Jesus can be overcome by Jesus love in the power of His resurrection.
Sunday morning, the women go the grave to serve in the last way available to them and come back with a wild tale. They are the first witnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus who is the Christ, after all.
Sunday morning, we can change the current epidemic of violence against women. The reports don’t mean it’s suddenly happening, they mean it’s finally out in the open, and in the light is where sin loses its power and God heals and restores. Sunday morning means we repent of sexism in our own relationships and then follow Jesus by speaking out and calling our churches first, and then our societies, to repentance. We aren’t living in Saturday anymore. It’s Sunday morning.
Sunday morning, we decide if we believe everything has changed or if we are still living in Saturday.*(Big old footnote)
Saturday, we have disciples who think their time of following Jesus has ended. Now listen to what happens after they experience Sunday:
27 When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. 30 The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”
That’s Peter, the same Peter whose words on Friday were, “I swear to God, I’ve never heard of this man Jesus!” This is the difference between Saturday and Sunday. Peter says this to the exact same people who tried Jesus and convinced Pilate to crucify him.
Here’s what happens next in Acts 5:
33 When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. 34 But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. 35 Then he said to them, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. 36 For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. 37 After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. 38 So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”
Gamaliel speaks the truth of Sunday: if it is God, you will not be able to overthrow them; if you oppose what they do, you may even be found fighting against God.
Did the disciples believe they could change the world? I don’t know. But they did. The disciples, by the power of God through the Holy Spirit moving in them, changed the world. That tiny little band of Jesus followers who had given up on Saturday because there was no hope left in the world saw Sunday, found out that the women were right, and then saw Jesus Christ risen from the dead, right there with them, talking with them, answering their questions, giving them a hard time for their doubts. And they proceeded to preach the Gospel and all of us who have heard the Gospel have heard it because they spoke it and it spread throughout the world.
I will tell you the truth: Things look bad to me right now, in a lot of ways. Some things that I’ve prayed to see change seem to be getting worse. I know that sin and brokenness are real in the world and they have consequences.
But it’s not Saturday. Jesus rose from the dead. He did. It’s Sunday and I’m going to live like it’s Sunday.
The difference between knowing about God and knowing God is that if you know God, you also know that God can change you. If you know God, you’re already changed. You might have forgotten it, you might be ignoring it now, you might be doubting it, but God has changed you and will continue to change you. You’ve already lived Sunday. If you’re back to living Saturday, I get it. It’s easy to do. But it’s not Reality. That’s not the truth.
This is the picture I want to leave you with. It’s not a choice between Saturday when I’m hopeless and Sunday when I know I can make things happen.
This is knowing Jesus and the power of His Resurrection: If we live in Saturday, we are blind to the reality that Jesus has died and risen from the dead; we are weeping over an empty tomb.
If we live in Sunday, we follow Jesus who rose from the dead and will lead us where He chooses, in His power, and He will change us and change the world through us. Our job is not to laugh at the women when they come tell us. Our job is to run to the tomb, to believe the unbelievable because we know it to be true—vision over visibility—and then to follow Jesus, to live Sunday, to let God lead us where the Spirit’s Power will open the tomb and raise the dead to life again.
*This is an excerpt from my friend Erna’s blog, Feisty Thoughts. I considered including this in my sermon but didn’t.
I need an Easter that has an answer for Trayvon, Tamir, Rekia Boyd, Sandra, Bland, and Stephon Clark.
I need an Easter that has something to say to survivors of Indian Boarding schools, and the generations of those traumatized by its legacy.
I need an Easter that has something to say about white supremacist evangelical Christianity.
I need an Easter that has something to say about white women who wont’ stop crying and recentering race conversations on themselves.
I need an Easter that has something to say to young queer believers who are considering suicide instead of coming out.
I need an Easter that addresses patriarchy in the Korean American church.
I need an Easter that sees and helps undocumented people whose families are being torn apart.
I need an Easter where you don’t have to be a perfect, super special, amazing immigrant for people to care about you.
I need an Easter that can dismantle the NRA.
I need an Easter that can address gun violence.
I need an Easter that addresses mass incarceration and the for profit prison system.
I need an Easter that doesn’t just talk about living water, but gets clean water to Flint.
I need an Easter where sexual violence against women, especially women of color, is talked about openly and addressed courageously.
Every year Easter is about individual sin. But I need an Easter that is big enough for our collective sin and brokenness, big enough for our systemic and institutionalized brokenness. I need an Easter that goes beyond the personal. The things that overwhelm my heart and soul right now have less to do with my personal wretchedness, than the brokenness of the systems I’m embedded in, participate in, and that impact me and the communities I love.
Easter sermon at International Christian Fellowship, 4/1/18.
Are we living in the reality of Saturday or Sunday?
Audio starts about 0:30.